Fresh out of an amazing double win at the Brand and Lifestyle Licensing Awards (B&LLA’s) in April, we are head down in preparation for our next round of overseas supplier visits. The win was for our innovative collaboration with The Military Wives Choirs, in producing a range of home and fashion accessories to help fund the charity in its endeavours to support the families of our military personnel, and the way in which we executed the delivery of this range in store. It is an amazing feeling to be recognised by the licensing industry for the work we have done; they are an incredible group of companies and people, whom I have the utmost respect for. Licensing is one of the most diverse, exciting and fast growing areas of retail, and it fascinates me how we can take a property and work with the licensees and licensor to create something so innovative and special, across a wide variety of product categories. However, there is no time to bask in the glory, or dwell on our success, we have to get on with the planning and negotiation of our core ranges for SS19.
We arrive in Dhaka in the early evening, as dusk descends and the ever present beeping horns, millions of people and uncontrollable traffic are all swirling in the stifling humidity. By the time we have checked in, and descended to the hotel buffet for dinner, we are a man down already…… one designer with a mysterious sickness bug which can only have been the consequence of something eaten en route. It does not bode well for the rest of our trip! The rest of us tuck into our first meal, accompanied by a glass of wine from the duty free we bought in Dubai. You may think this is an odd thing to do, until you read a wine list in Dhaka…. The cheapest bottle on this particular list is around £80 (Jacobs Creek Shiraz), and we cannot bring ourselves to expect that to be acceptable on expenses!
Day 1 starts off following the usual pattern, as the boyswear buyer and I are picked up for the long journey to our first factory. Surprisingly, we arrive in just over an hour, having taken a “short cut” along some very dubious (and very bumpy) roads. Having arrived to meet our colleagues at this first class jersey factory, we proceed to work our way through style after style, which in true Bangladeshi style, takes forever! Negotiation is tough, cotton prices are going up, as are labour rates in Bangladesh, both factors combining to create quite a tense atmosphere. I have been here many times before, however, and under far worse circumstances, although the current state of the market in the UK is creating significant pressure on both retailers and suppliers alike. With numerous retailer administrations & CVA’s underway for some major players on the UK high street, and the looming prospect of a merger between Asda and Sainsbury’s, our suppliers are nervous about what the immediate future might bring. It is worth remembering that, as tough as it is for us in the UK, it is equally, if not more difficult for most of the sources we are dealing with, and in my book negotiation is all about achieving a positive, and more importantly, profitable outcome for both parties. Our suppliers are no good to us if they are in financial difficulty because we have pushed too hard, and this has to be balanced with the need for us as a retailer to maintain profitability at prices our customers are prepared to pay. It can be frustrating, and is often exhausting, but under these circumstances it is critical to keep emotion out of it! I have witnessed, first hand in the past, the effect that an angry, frustrated buyer can have on the process, with it imploding and agreement reached on nothing. I have probably made reference to this quote in the past, but as Marigay McKee once said, when Chief Merchant at Harrods “the most charming buyers get the best deals”. I still believe this to be true, even after so much change in the industry, and that the relationships we build as buyers, with our sources worldwide, have the potential to make or break a business.
After 12 hours, and over 80 styles reviewed and negotiated encompassing boys, girls and babywear, everyone is exhausted, and we pile into the car, along with some of the merchandising team from the factory to head back into the city. Unfortunately we have barely made it 10 minutes down the road before the traffic grinds to a halt, and we are stationary for over half an hour, in the inky black darkness, lit up only by all the traffic headlights. The only entertainment is to watch other, less patient drivers, careering up the wrong side of the road, or a lorry lurching at an alarming angle, in and out of the ditch beside us as it tries to avoid the queue. At one point it is leaning so dramatically over us that I have to squeeze my eyes tight shut, surely it is going to topple? However, disaster averted the truck continues on its perilous progress, narrowly missing other cars, trees and people wandering about in the dark, or, having just got out to take a leak. There are men peeing everywhere, where do they all come from? And why do they all seem to need to pee at the same time, in the same place…… I shut my eyes, again! A face appears, knocking at the window, making us jump with surprise, but it turns out to be another member of the factory team, who was in a car behind us, coming to apologise for the traffic! I ask if it is possible to turn around and take the “short cut” back the way we came this morning? His response is not what I was looking for. No, he says, it is far too dangerous, as there are many car jackings after dark on that road. On balance, after considering (momentarily!) the likelihood of the company coughing up the ransom money for a couple of buyers missing in action, we stay where we are! Nose to tail amongst the painted and battered trucks! Only at this point does someone mention the fact that commercial vehicles are not allowed into the city during the day; the ban lifts at 10pm, at which point there is a crazy rush of hurtling, beeping, lorries careering along every route. I look at my watch, it is 10.10pm and why, oh why, are they only telling me this now? We eventually arrive back at the hotel just before 1am, stiff from sitting in the car for so long, starving hungry, having had access only to a bag of mixed nuts and a cereal bar since lunchtime. The restaurant is closed & room service will take 30 mins; I give up, take a sleeping tablet and get straight into bed, only to be awoken a couple of hours later by the most incredible storm. Forked lightening, deafening thunder and wind that makes the windows shake as if they are going to blow in, are not condusive to a good nights sleep, even without the jet lag kicking in!
What feels like a very few hours later, and bleary eyed, we are up to meet our colleagues (including a pale, but recovering designer) for breakfast, and are then picked up to meet another supplier, with whom we plan to spend the day. Here too, negotiations are very difficult and at times we seem to be going round and round in circles, making no progress. We park the trickiest styles, and keep moving on, coming back to the most contentious ones later in the day. After a much needed break for lunch in the company flat next door, the pace of the discussions gains momentum. We have made a breakthrough and managed to get some styles agreed. In the meantime, I have had a discussion with their new CEO about the state of the UK market, and business going forward, which gives me renewed optimism. By the time we come back to the last few remaining styles, we are on a roll, and manage to get everything finalised. It is 9pm, and yet again, we have spent 12hrs locked in discussion. Everyone packs up their laptops, files, garments and phones, and we leave for a late dinner at a Thai restaurant close by, some of us in the car, and the two remaining (local designer and our British account manager) in a rickshaw. After last nights conversations about carjackings, I am a little worried for her safety, but they arrive a few minutes behind us. It is a real treat to be out in a restaurant that is not encapsulated in one of the major hotels, and once the wine has been poured everyone starts to relax and enjoy a truly lovely meal. Exhausted, we arrive back at the hotel at 11.30pm, only to start packing for an early flight to Delhi in the morning. My 2 days in Dhaka has passed in a blur.
We are at the airport by 8am, and as soon as the plane leaves the ground, I am catching up on much needed sleep, waking slightly dishevelled as we come in to land in a very hot, dry and arid Delhi. I leave my mens and boyswear colleagues, who are catching a connecting flight to Bangalore, and head out through the arrivals hall to be met by one of the hotel drivers, in his white suit and hat! On climbing into the car I am offered a blissfully ice cold and fragrant hand towel, bottle of water and in car Wifi, whilst we undertake the short drive to the hotel, and the oasis of calm amidst the chaos, that is the Trident in Gurgaon. We have stayed here on a number of occasions, as it is close to a number of the suppliers we work with, and they welcome me back with friendly smiles and a complimentary room upgrade.
Ten minutes to freshen up, unpack a few necessities, and I am disappearing through the “hole in the wall” into the sister hotel that is the Oberoi, to meet our babywear buyer and head of design, along with one of our suppliers, for a late lunch, and to catch up on progress so far. They have set up camp in a meeting room in the business centre, so having seen our babywear colleagues off to the airport for their early evening flight to Coimbatore, I settle down to talk business strategy in general, and to work on a few styles for boyswear, who will not be visiting Delhi. It is impossible for every team to visit every supplier location on every trip, they would stretch to be unfeasibly long and costly expeditions, so I try and pick up the slack, dipping in and out of one supplier or another in each location, to fill in the gaps and negotiate outstanding prices/review samples etc. This particular supplier is based around four hours by train from Delhi, so it is simply not workable to visit every season. By the time we have finished our meeting, the girlswear team have arrived back from Nehru Place, the Delhi fabric market, filled with inspiration, print ideas, trims and accessories. They arrived in Delhi early that morning, after an overnight flight from home, and are shattered, so we opt for a low key dinner at the hotel buffet, a much needed glass of wine and an early night. I am very pleased to be crawling into bed with the prospect of actually getting a full 8 hours sleep, and still having time for a 7am swim before breakfast!
The following morning one buyer heads off to see a factory nearby, whilst the other buyer and myself, along with the girlswear designer head back to the business centre in the Oberoi for another quick morning meeting. In the afternoon we are heading out into the 42 degree heat and a nearby factory, to begin developing and briefing new designs that the team have been working on. Both girls buyers, and the designer are busy drawing up CAD sketches and swatching, creating a program of samples to put into work, based on our trend boards and colour palettes for the spring 2019 season. Some design packs have been sent out in advance, but in this particular case, most of the development is done on site, taking inspiration from styles and fabrics we have seen here, or samples we have brought with us to work on. It is a very fluid, creative process, which relies greatly on the buyers and designers imagination, inventiveness and product development skills, coupled with their knowledge and experience of what has worked in the past, and is likely to cost into our pricing architecture. I consider myself lucky to be working with such a talented, creative and hardworking team!
I also take a quick tour around the very quiet factory, and stop to greet the pattern master – a couple of our orders are in the finishing and packing department, so I am able to see completed production of these AW18 styles before they leave. It is 9pm by the time we have finished, and again, we head straight out for dinner with our hosts, to somewhere new, The Delhi Club House. The menu is a fusion of dishes from many of the old British colonial club houses around India, and includes just about every favoured dish from a broad selection of cuisines. When combined with a lively crowd and some great music, it really does prove to be a great Friday night out in Delhi!
The following morning is a saturday, and we have an early pick up, heading over to the other side of the city for a visit to a factory which is newer to us. The roads are surprisingly quiet, even for a saturday morning, and we settle down to the job at hand in a really inspiring showroom, full of great new development ideas. We work on through the morning, and stop briefly for a delicious “home cooked” Indian lunch. I am always so grateful for the hospitality we experience on these visits – it still amazes me how much trouble our suppliers will go to to ensure that we are well looked after! I also find it excruciatingly uncomfortable that we rarely manage to reciprocate with a similar level of hospitality when they visit us in London. The afternoon rolls on with a great deal more design and product development, however, it is only a matter of time before we become slightly distracted by events going on back home…… today is the Harry & Meghan Royal Wedding, and it seems our Indian hosts are equally as interested as we are!
Once back at the hotel, we have a brief moment of peace for a quick swim and a Jasmine Martini by the pool, to toast the royal couple, before sitting down for a quiet dinner. It very quickly becomes apparent to me that all is not well! I am hot and dizzy, and feeling very queasy, so I make an early exit and spend a very disturbed night, closely followed by a 6am alarm call. I am feeling very fragile, as I try to consume something for breakfast, before leaving for the airport once more, and the short flight to Bangalore. There is a very long check in queue, and upon reaching the desk, we go through the usual palaver of having to pay for excess baggage; the consequence of carrying all these samples and paperwork, but we are also asked if we have any “batteries, inflammables or coconuts” in our checked baggage!?!? Now that’s one I’ve never been asked before! Apparently they are prone to exploding due to the change in air pressure, but who on earth packs coconuts in their luggage?
Arriving at the Leela in Bangalore a few hours later, all I really need is a light un-spicy lunch and a few hours off to wind down (the only few hours we will get in an 11 day trip), but my day is shattered by some very distressing news from home and the only food on offer being the bottomless brunch buffet and some very questionable, very loud cabaret (Peter Andre meets Tom Jones, Indian style). We eat quickly and leave, meeting the babywear team who have arrived from Coimbatore, and congregating around the pool to catch up on our trip so far, trading information on which suppliers we have seen and the outcomes of each meeting. I depart to FaceTime home, and try to comprehend what is going on from a distance, but it is never easy, dealing with distraught children and partners from a different continent, in a different time zone, and feeling like you really should be there for support, but knowing that even if you were, there is really nothing you can do to make the situation any better. All in the name of clothing….. it leaves me feeling numb and questioning my priorities.
Monday morning arrives, and with it more factory and showroom visits. I am with the babywear team in the morning, visiting a factory which makes soft wovens and dresses. We have tried a slightly different tactic this trip, in an attempt to drive up hit rate, and reduce the amount of sampling, being much more selective about what gets put into work. The teams have worked on development of new styles/blocks/specs prior to leaving the UK, which have been made up in available fabrics to assess and cost the styles. Having decided which ones are most likely to make the cut, the buyer gets on with negotiating prices, whilst I move on to meet the girlswear team at another factory across town. This supplier has major growth potential for us, but there are some issues we need to iron out. We are not the largest of retailers, and our smaller volume orders are vying for space on production lines which are producing for much larger businesses, who place orders which might be 20 or 30 times the size of ours. In theory, this works for both us and them, as we can benefit from tagging on to the back of much larger fabric orders, whilst the factory is using our small runs to fill in the gaps in their capacity…… It is a symbiotic relationship but we need to re-establish some parameters, in essence, a framework of what, when, why and how to ensure that orders are processed in an effective and timely manner. Yet again, we are at the factory til late, whilst a phenomenal storm rages outside, and the rain descends in sheets, and, yet again, we head straight from the factory to dinner. There really is no downtime on this trip!!!
Day 2 in Banglore and I am back with the babywear team again, weaving our way through the city streets, and the vegetable market (short cut?) out onto the highway to one of our key factories. We are greeted by the team with wonderful bouquets of roses, and get stuck in to a morning of reviewing some fantastic samples, and more price negotiation. This is another factory that always makes a phenomenal effort to create every sample we have requested, as close as possible to our design/colour specifications, which gives them a far better chance of making it through the sign off process and securing orders. Having reviewed all of the samples and made adjustments where necessary, tweaking a fabric base, colour, shape, trim, graphic or embellishment, we move on to negotiating prices, before lunch arrives. This is a “meat free” factory so we tuck into a variety of tasty vegetarian dhals and vegetable curries, and the ever present paneer, which I love! I seem to be talking about food a lot……again, mainly because it can make or break a trip like this. Having had instances of both myself and other team members falling seriously ill on occasions, on these trips, I have a series of rules which I try to adhere to when on these visits! These include a really high potency probiotic, and multivitamin every day; plenty of bottled water to combat dehydration, stick to local cuisine unless in one of the major hotels, and even there it is advisable; never eat seafood unless you are near the coast (I failed on this count but without ill effect this time!) and never, ever, ever eat sushi from a buffet or brush your teeth with tap water!
We leave the central sewing and processing factory we are based in, and head out to see a brand new unit a short distance away. As is to be expected with this particular company, it is immaculate and exceptionally well organised, has every available technical advancement, and the workforce are happy and well looked after. I am in awe of this business, and its owner, whom I first met in my previous role, when it was one factory. Over the past 9 years, I have watched it grow into a vast, well run operation, with 7 production units, its’ own brand of childrens clothing, and a retail network extending right across India. Having viewed this new site, we think we are heading back to the main factory, but our hosts have other ideas. They are keen to treat us on the way back, with a visit to McDonalds, Indian style! I don’t ever eat McDonalds when I am in the UK, let alone in India. We protest that it is not necessary, we are not hungry, etc but they are insistent. I still do not understand why this was such a big deal when we had only finished lunch a couple of hours ago? Maybe they were keen to eat meat, having been deprived at lunch, but I think it unlikely, given that they must be used to it, and meat free meals here are far from unusual. Or maybe they were worried that we needed some supplementary protein, despite the fact that one of us is vegetarian anyway!?!? Maybe it was simply a delaying tactic, for some reason, we will probably never know, unless one of them is reading this post! However, they are insistent, and only after some spicy chicken strips, masala wedges and a photocall with Ronald, are they happy to get back in the car and return to the factory. We plough on through a series of lab dips, fabrics, strike offs, buttons, trims and appliques, approving as much as we can whilst we are here, to minimise the amount of approvals needing to be sent backwards and forwards to and from the UK, eventually departing late in the evening, for another long car journey back to the hotel.
After one final day of product development and negotiation with our final supplier visit on this tour, at their office in the centre of Banglore, and a particularly memorable Indian barbecue lunch (food….again!) we are more than ready to head for home.
My major takeaway from this round of visits, is to reinforce what we already know….. Buying is not a science, and however much we might want to package everything up in a concise and consistent, measurable manner, it simply does not work like that. Buying is a creative art, a merging of technical and behavioural skills, built on knowledge, understanding, personality, teamwork, relationships, passion for product, and often, “gut feeling”. Every buyer has a slightly different way of doing things, and there is huge skill involved in understanding how to adapt their style of development and negotiation, according to the region, and the supplier they are working with. It is not a level playing field; every supplier will be subject to different economic, political, social, environmental and technical pressures, and even dealing with the same source, in the same location may require a different approach between one visit and the next. Yes, there are elements of “best practice” we can apply but there is no single formula for success!
A trip like the one we have just returned from always reminds me that sometimes, it is a complete and utter privilege to have the job that I have. Working for a “uniquely” British, privately owned, high street retailer is not without its’ challenges and frustrations; it can be exhausting and infuriating, but it is also enlightening and exhilerating, fascinating and on occasions, entirely inspiring.
This latest round of supplier visits found me embarking on a tour taking in 12 days, 3 countries, 7 flights, 5 hotels, 32+ hrs of hair raising car journeys, 9 supplier meetings, numerous factory visits, hundreds of samples assessed and prices negotiated, and some very questionable toilet facilities! In total we are a team of 10, all leaving and arriving in different places, at different times, intersecting in order to join up for key appointments, with particular buyers and designers focussing on different regions and suppliers, dependant on the department they are buying for. All of my team are buying multi product departments, requiring them to flex between trousers and jackets, denim and knitwear, jersey and shirts, dresses and skirts. We cannot all visit every supplier in every location, so in some places the buyers or I are negotiating on behalf of other members of our team, to cover off particular product types. The whole itinerary is a carefully planned, ever evolving jigsaw puzzle, all put together within a very tight budget, to try and drive out the most efficient and beneficial long term results for the business and its suppliers.
The trip began with our head of design, and one of the buyers, departing for South Korea, in search of new and exciting inspiration for the AW2018 season. I began my journey a few days later, on a sunday evening, leaving Gatwick bound for Hong Kong, where myself and those coming from Korea, along with another buyer and designer, would join forces to see our key Chinese suppliers. The focus here is on outerwear, knitwear and fleece, for which China is still the strongest source for us, despite the increasing costs and instability of sterling vs USD.
Brexit is a hot topic of conversation, and forms part of the discussion in just about every meeting. Our overseas colleagues cannot believe what is happening any more than we can, and many of them think it is simply laughable that we, supposedly one of the most highly developed nations on earth, can get ourselves into such a mess! What do we think will happen? What sort of implications will it have for British business? How might it change the way we trade, both within the EU and with the rest of the world? All I can tell them at this point, is that we really do not know, and until the government gets its act together and starts to make real progress, all we can really do is speculate. However, having recently taken part in a conference staged by the ASBCI, on the potential impact of Brexit, what I am sure of is that we need to be planning for every eventuality. There are many potential outcomes, both positive and negative, dependant upon the sort of deal the government negotiates, if there is a deal at all. Without effective planning we will be unable to react as quickly and decisively as we need to, in order to minimise damage and maximise potential from any changes to the way we trade.
There follows a few days of supplier discussions and negotiations, dashing from one appointment to the next all over Kowloon, jumping in and out of the distinctive Hong Kong red taxi’s with their eternally grumpy taxi drivers! The negotiation is tough; long laborious discussions about rising labour costs, and in many instances, we are trying to move on core products and lead in pricepoint styles. Inevitably, any changes we have designed, tend to add cost rather than subtract it, so it is a balancing act of generating newness, whilst minimising the impact of new styling details. It takes the combined efforts of the problem solving minds of myself, our head of design, and each supplier, to come up with the best possible solutions for the business, which will increase sales turnover and profit, whilst still offering the customer a great product at a great price.
Hong Kong also offers me a brief opportunity to catch up with some old friends from my time with M&S, and it is a great pleasure to see them! We also spend some downtime with one or two of our key suppliers in the evenings, getting to know them and their teams a little better, further developing those relationships which will help us achieve success here. It is my firm belief that making the effort to socialise with our suppliers outside the office really makes a difference when it comes to the buying and negotiation process, and over the years, I have made a great many good friends around the world as a result.
I have one last morning appointment on our final day in Hong Kong, before heading to the airport with one of my buying team for the journey that will take us, via Bangkok, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The second leg is delayed, and we eventually arrive at our destination at around 2am. No time to unpack, I need to cram in a few hours sleep; the menswear buyer and I have an early pick up, heading out to a major knitwear supplier, for which the CEO is joining us.
We spend the morning discussing mens knitwear programs and key seasonal deals, before breaking for lunch, which is a selection of tasty, but also spicy, local dishes. The boyswear buyer and designer arrive and we move on to our next appointment, with a key source for casual wovens, the first introduction to this supplier set up for our CEO. We discuss the factory units we are using, the management set up and design/fabric sourcing resource The day ends with us heading straight to dinner with the supplier, at a newly opened nearby hotel, where the other buyers and designers join us. The Italian food is delicious, but I am stunned by the prices in this place! It never ceases to amaze me that, here in Dhaka, eating a meal, or drinking a glass of wine, can be extortionately expensive.
The following morning, two of the buyers, a designer, and myself, head out for a flight to Chittagong, to visit three factories. This is not a journey I have undertaken before, and it is with some trepidation that I board the small propellor plane for the 40 minute flight. I needn’t have worried, it passes without incident, and we are soon deposited into the slightly greener, leafier surroundings of the city, although the roads are in significantly worse condition, and we enjoy a boneshaker of a car journey to our first factory.
Great to know the insights of our buyers… how they apprehend things when they come to us on a business trip! The writer was not discreet about telling her tale… the vivacious journey she waded past with sheer dedication, diligence and determination are awe-inspiring. kudos to her!!!